Starbright and the Dream Eater by Joy Cowley

23939The town of Claircomb is afflicted an illness which makes people suffer terrible nightmares before becoming unconscious. Starbright, an adventurous young girl, discovers it is not an illness, but a malignant psychic alien entity that feeds on people’s dreams. She also discovers that she has been named in a prophecy to be the one whom can stand up to the Dream Eater and save the world from this alien menace.

Joy Cowley is one of New Zealand‘s most prolific and celebrated authors. She has had over 400 early reader books published, twenty picture books and several novels and short story collections for children and young adults. For adult readers she has had five novels, a short story collection, and various articles and books on spiritualism published.

Starbright (published 1998) won the New Zealand Post Junior Fiction Award in 1999, but does this mean the book is any good? The first chapter starts with a pretty tense birth scene, where a mentally handicapped teenage girl named Esther gives birth to a little girl. This little girl is our main character, Starbright, and despite an intriguing opening chapter full of potential, these ideas are only mentioned in passing throughout the story. The book itself has nothing to do with Esther – she is relegated to a minor walk-on character, with Starbright brought up by her grandparents thinking Esther is her sister.

In New Zealand the Pacific Island cultures in particular have high instances of children being raised by grandparents with their biological parents being raised as ‘siblings’. So it was disappointing that such a potentially powerful plot point is no more than a contrived gimmick to grab the readers attention. More on this later.

The prophecy is handed down through time via the “Guardians of the Universe” (unrelated to the race in DC’s Green Lantern comics) who have foreseen the Earth becoming a barren wasteland after the Dream Eater’s arrival. So in typical ‘fight-the-future’ trope, Starbright has knowledge of what will happen if she fails. As per the typical prophecy, nothing is said on how to defeat the enemy, merely who shall defeat the enemy – and even this is classically ambiguous.

The characters seem a little contrived here as well. Even though it is a young adults novel, the characters are pretty two dimensional. Starbright’s personality is defined by her repeated use of nonsensical words – not just in dialogue, but in her internalisations and also in the books narration. In fact, it is mentioned after page sixty by her grandmother not to make up so many silly words, so even the Author is aware of how irritating this character trait is. Unfortunately, it does nothing for the story and adds nothing to the character. After the half way point there is an average of two ridiculous words per page.

“I’m not making any big wollabuzoo about it.” “Hoo-diddly!””…sometimes it skitterwhizzed like a rollercoaster…” “she would have a flumshous foot garden blooming by the time she got home.” “It’s a gimassive continent.” “They grinch my feet.” “What a bunch of bunhiddly hoozit!”

This use of imaginary language is so over the top that it is found on almost every page, and in some pages the reader is forced to endure three of four of these within the same conversation. The author is most proud of Hoo-diddly as it occurs without fail on average every two pages., often appearing multiple times on a single page.

Chapter five is a special treat where we are treated to quite a considerable info-dump thinly disguised as newspaper clippings/journal notes. One could argue that this is a perfectly acceptable way to deliver bulk exposition and background information – but not for ten pages straight, and especially not in a children’s book. Ironically, the backstory is actually far more intriguing than the rest of the book. The author’s focus was in the wrong place perhaps with Starbright. This book has many confused and tangled ideas that don’t belong together in one narrative.

The ending is where Esther finally has an actual role in the book. One of her constant saysings is “lovesee”, and it is during the undramatic and anticlimactic showdown where Starbright remembers these words, tells the alien entity she doesn’t hate it and it has to leave. And it does. The end. No grand fight, no battle of wits – literally she ‘uses the power of love’ to ask the antagonist to leave.

And through some unexplained mechanism, not only does Starbright change the course of the future, but somehow the past. Now nobody remembers any of these events and we we finish the story with a lazy and uninspired “it was all a dream” sequence.

Joy Cowley is out of her element in trying to write long coherent stories – her talents are better suited to the short para-books for small children who won’t question or challenge the imaginary worlds they are introduced to. This book still has plenty of merits, though. The children don’t act overly-childish and, for all it’s flaws, has a lot of interesting an original ideas.

Unfortunately, through some poor execution this book comes off seeming like the author took a lot of easy and lazy options in getting the story finished. Cowley doesn’t talk down to the reader, unless one counts the constant barrage of ridiculous and pointless words spoken by Starbright.

So one has to ask the question: since this book won the New Zealand Post Junior Fiction Award in 1999, then what was the caliber of the competition that allowed this book to be considered superior.

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